Being a large man, I’ve crushed many things by mistake. It’s quite embarrassing. But I’ll never forget when I accidentally crushed another writer in a group critique. I could tell as we were delivering our critiques that we were loading him down with an Empire State Building of criticism that he couldn’t withstand.

The right reason to critique a manuscript is to help others get better. After hearing Jon Colson’s speech at our recent writer’s conference, I realized we can’t do that by being like Simon Cowell. Here are some guidelines for giving critiques in large groups:

1) Focus on Specific Issues

The show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is notable because viewers get to see a house built from the ground up. That model of a house being built should drive our group critique. Books, like houses, are built over a process of time. If writers are doing their job in submitting their critiques and asking for the specific issues they want you to critique for, then give them what they asked for and no more.

You may notice a manuscript needs a lot of work, but your job isn’t to fix the whole manuscript. Your job is to help with the specific areas of feedback they requested. If they’re asking you to help them put up the side wall, trust they’ll figure out the house needs plumbing. If they do indicate they think this is the book’s only issue, and love irresistibly compels you to confront them, please wait until after the meeting is over and gently tell them the truth in private. Public humiliation never helps anyone.

2) Give a Thoughtful Critique

Be specific in your critique and avoid using generalities. For example, these cut and paste critiques are not helpful:

“You need more description.”

“You need to work on having less telling.”

Instead, try:

“We spent the whole six pages in that kitchen, but we have no idea what it looks like. What color is the chair they’re sitting in? Is there wallpaper? What makes this kitchen unique?”

“Instead of telling us, ‘Joe is angry,’ show him raising his voice, clinching his fists, and with his cheeks turning red. Let’s hear him use angry words.”

If possible, before you share your critique, say it out loud so you can hear how the critique will sound to the writer. This is doubly important if you’re e-mailing a critique. The written word can come off as harsh and bossy to the recipient. Say it out loud to ensure you have an appropriate tone.

3) Provide Positive Feedback

Point out the good in the manuscript and the things you like. Particularly, if you’ve critiqued a manuscript for an issue before, remark on what they’ve improved. Praise what’s good. This encourages them to be better writers.

4) Don’t Argue

It is up to the writer whether to accept or reject your advice. Having provided your advice, don’t argue with the writer or try to push them into doing it your way. Some personalities tend towards arguments; don’t get hooked.

Be careful not to command writers. “I hate this! Change it!” is beyond your scope unless you’re an editor of a large press able to offer a generous advance. If you are, please e-mail me at this address. Otherwise, be respectful of the writer’s vision. Suggest ways to make their vision work and leave whether they implement it up to them.